Part 2 of this series explores the growing trend towards t-shaped individuals and teams, while making more flexible and inclusive considerations. We look at T-shaping in the first section then we follow with ways of implementing t-shaping using Opquast.
Part 2 – T-shaped teams for better collaboration
Part 2.1 – T-shaping, How and Why
T-shaped professionals are essentially individuals that are both generalists and specialists at the same time. Across the horizontal of the T you have the broader supporting knowledge and adjacent business topics and the vertical of the T you have the specialist area(s) of the individual. The ideal T-shaped profiles have the ability to collaborate with a greater number of experts outside their main field and to pick up new skills and integrate knowledge easily. Experts in one field with no breadth are known as I-shaped and many variations on these central themes exist.
Highly adaptive individuals that learn many skills have been dubbed icicle-shaped3 (see figure 2 below). The icicle expression of the T- shaped concept (sometimes referred to as broken-comb or paint-drip) is a highly valuable way of viewing the skills of our teams, assessing skills gaps and for building well balanced teams.
Appreciation of T-shaped skills is still growing
The term T-shaped skills was coined late ’70s and has been around since the ’80s but was popularised by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO Design in the aughts10. It is fast becoming accepted as a preferred configuration for project teams especially within agile teams such as scrum. Over the last 4 years the use of the term has doubled, on average, and the approach is a growing feature of HR and training strategies for major consulting companies.
At the time of writing the Linkedin web community was giving opinions for UX expert Kyrillos Samaan’s poll regarding what additional skills UX/UI Product Designers could learn. Carlos Lopez UX/UI Product Designer at RavenPack answered:
“I think all of those skills are relevant in some way. Knowing only HTML and CSS (JS is an extra) will allow you to think like a developer, which will help you understand how each element could be built and the effort it costs. Now you can think like a product manager and create a better estimation of the MVP. And if you understand your product at this level you can sell it with total coherence”.
In one statement Lopez has described some of the benefits of a T-shaped professional in an agile framework. For T-shaped skills and agile projects please read article 3 (release date Tuesday 6th September).
Classic T-shaped skills profile
If the T-shaped profile below sounds like an ideal match for a management consultant, it is because the concept of T-shaped was greatly developed by Mc Kinsey and company to refer to an ideal employment candidate or somebody that they would partner with. At IDEO there is an employment policy to employ all project staff to fit a rigid classic t-shaped profile. The exact blend is debatable but traits that are consistently quoted as part of the classic profile are namely:
Empathy and interest: in other team members work.
Enthusiasm: The joy of learning and constantly improving.
Open minded: The ability to listen to others, to learn from them and embrace others ideas and to build upon those ideas.
Visionary: Can see clearly ahead how projects should come together and where problems might exist. Having a great base of knowledge including lessons learned.
Collaborative: With regards to T-shaped skills successful collaboration comes from having knowledge of interfacing disciplines and the vocabulary to interface with our colleagues.
Creative: The ability to problem solve or see creative solutions. This can stem from having a broad base of skills and knowledge.
Emotional intelligence: To be able to read colleagues and sense stress or levels of happiness or discomfort.
Active listening: The ability to analyse what is being said and to build upon ideas on the fly in a collaborative way.
While knowledge of the perfect profile for T-shaped candidates is useful for guidance, the necessity of filling project teams with such profiles is not the only way or even the best way11,12. Experts are necessary to fix specialised bottlenecks in many projects, and for training and dissemination. While experts perhaps might not be the best team members for collaboration or for seeing the full vision of a project; they are there for necessary deep diving and risk assessment. We consider in greater depth the use of experts in the final article of the series concerning agile. Most recruitment policies should certainly try to find empathetic, enthusiastic and emotionally intelligent people, so awareness of these classic t-shaped skills is useful in recruitment as a target to move towards, where possible, during onboarding and continuous training programmes.
Why move towards T-shaped skills?
The increased collaboration and empathy can break down silos and increase the agility of employees and improve an organisation’s overall efficiency i.e. if a high number of t-shaped individuals work in an organisation they can be used to help experts work on specific backlogs2 increasing efficiency and reducing costs of outsourcing experts. T-shapes are particularly suitable for small organisations or small teams that don’t have lots of experts and need to move staff around for specific tasks.
The t-shaped teams approach is really an answer to longstanding issues identified during organisational psychology studies in the ’60s, of particular note the work by Bruce Tuckman15. Tuckman defined characteristics and strategies within common phases of team work; the phases being Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning. The recommended strategies of Tuckman are worth reviewing when applying a t-shaped approach. The T-shaped approach should directly address the main issues such as prolonged latency when a team starts to work together and communication issues. The model is still great for knowing when to apply team health checks and the occassional strategic steer and for building trust and motivating teams at each stage.
Case studies using neurodiverse people
Over the past few years HR departments in some of the world’s largest companies i.e. Microsoft, SAP, Hewlett Packard (HPE) etc5 have been introducing neurodiverse support programs and enjoying great results. HPE’s program of 30 software testers suggest that the organization’s neurodiverse testing teams are 30% more productive than the others. As a result of this work Australian Defence Department is now working with HPE to develop a neurodiversity program in cybersecurity; where commonly participants demonstrate superior pattern-detection abilities.
At SAP neurodiverse employees are excelling at helping customers apply SAP solutions to business problems; and customer support, which means working with customers on the phone to help them use SAP software. This is proof that assumptions that people with autism can’t hold jobs that require social skills aren’t always going to be true. This backs up much research that shows that most neurodiverse including those with autism can improve their empathy, humour and communication skills7.
Neurodiverse strengths can be a major asset to project teams in the right place; they can be great creative thinkers, analytics as well as pattern recognition experts. There are however warnings that neurodivergent stereotyping is equally dangerous “Each neurodivergent person is unique, and it wouldn’t be accurate to generalize their cognitive process”15. This article does not go into lengths on neurodiverse, in the summary we highlight some approaches for key considerations of inclusive recruitment.
Part 2.2 – T-shaping digital teams with Opquast
Opquast supports the t-shaped approach with a generalist foundational training which itself is suitable for all individuals that touch digital or web projects and work. The training teaches fundamental skills in 8 related core disciplines: accessibility, UX-Usability, Performance, RGPD/Privacy, SEO, Security, E-commerce and Eco-design. The training also teaches soft skills and vocabulary to create those collaborative and empathetic touch points between diverse professionals.
These core disciplines all support improving the UX of the web sites or web applications as well as creating more ethical and in effect more commercially effective project results. They form a t-shaped non-technical training for a knowledge and skills-based Web Quality Assurance program. The training isn’t directly related to testing or the work of Quality Assurance Engineers, though the Opquast checklist is commonly used against auditing or unit tests. We talk about how this solution is being used to complement effective onboarding in the first part of this series.
Better UX is a shared goal that should unite all digital project teams increasing their collaboration. Opquast is an approach to improve the user experience taken from the wide angled lens of web projects and consensus-defined universal requirements and lessons learned. The body of work covers the full gambit of user experience, from SEO and searching through to user quality issues with service and delivery. It is this wide viewpoint that makes it relevant to a wide array of professionals from marketing to technical and allows them to develop empathy across diverse professions. At the same time the training aims to motivate employees in sharing responsibility in purpose-driven goals such as customer-centricity, inclusion and better Corporate Social Responsibility.
T-shaped training at handover points
Web and digital projects are particularly reliant upon good handover and collaboration. All of the elements of a web project have complex interactions and many disciplines within a project will have to understand something about the other roles in a project.
Most web deliverables will have to satisfy many quality checks and have the input of multiple professionals. Cross-training for web and digital is an opportunity for people to work on tasks with a broader understanding of the inter-related fields that they will need knowledge and understanding of. All professionals working in digital, including websites, application development and creating digital content such as emails and social media, should grasp that they have a responsibility for UX, accessibility, eco-design, and SEO as a bare minimum and the inter-dependencies and significance of each. The image below shows three Opquast ‘quality rules’ which engage knowledge of nine different disciplines: Contents, Accessibility, Eco-conception, SEO, Design, Editorial, E-commerce, Privacy, and Development.
Knowing the adjacent disciplines you work with on a project allows for a more complete handover, where each discipline has some capacity to check their own work against the expected inputs that other disciplines will subsequently give. This increases overall quality and cuts down the task durations.
Jason Yip, a senior agile coach at Spotify stated that to start cross-training your people, first identify the major tasks and skills in a specific area of your organisation. Because it’s easier to pick up skills and technologies that are similar to the ones we already know, Yip recommends cross-training at the points where one role hands off to another11.
T-shaped necessity for Q.A. and Accessibility
Disciplines such as digital accessibility and user quality need a comprehensive staffing approach where all roles from marketing through to customer support understand the basics both during projects and after they go live.
Application and website updates are continuous and as mentioned above, new digital content has a broad remit and is always being published, continually exposing organisations to risk of poor accessibility.
Experts are essential for deep dive UX accessibility analysis and for training and knowledge dissemination, but they don’t have the bandwidth to continually keep accessibility or quality compliance in check. Regular audits are often necessary to keep accessibility in check. We talk in greater deal about agile accessibility as a solution in the final article of this series.
The breadth of the accessibility challenge can be seen by the SCULPT model below; content and design decisions everywhere need some accessibility knowledge. Opquast carries 12713 foundational ‘quality rules’ for web accessibility which are relevant to most web and software projects but again also to most digital content.
User experience quality, which has to be inextricably linked to accessibility and inclusion, also has to be a team effort; that is the idea of inspiring ‘quality custodians’ as a central tenet of the Opquast training; everybody takes some responsibility of the quality of the user experience, everybody’s watching everybody’s back on the team, everybody has a bit of extra motivation knowing they are enriching their skills by taking care of good business ethics.
Quality assurance is often overlooked until the end of the project at which stage it can be incredibly expensive to correct. Due to the size and time necessary to fix all issues some projects can enter into an endless loop of quality and accessibility audits. Q.A. needs to be continually assessed, from the design phase through every iteration and stage of a project. It needs a wide support base of web-facing professionals with a good comprehension of the common issues and an extensive vocabulary to aid collaboration; these are the typical t-shaped strengths the Opquast open-license solutions and the training is targeting.
Aligning the T-shaped skills for our teams
At the finish of the Opquast training certified members are reminded that this is just the beginning and that next they might want to choose their first, or next, specialism based upon one of the disciplines this generalist training has introduced them to. As team members progress along the vertical of the T towards higher expertise on any of the disciplines they become a point of greater redundancy for the leading experts or eventually experts themselves. As teams develop together they need to be conscious of where the skills gaps still lie and organisations need to align their training matrices accordingly, creating higher skill redundancy, collaboration, and shared learning opportunities.
We need to look at all the theories closely and to examine how to balance effective project team structures with T and I-shaped individuals while including those who maybe neurodiverse. It stands to reason that with enough profiles leaning towards the classic t-shaped profile then collaboration should not fail if balanced recruitment policies are in place. Ludmila N. Praslova writes that ” a balanced view on autistic and neurodivergent strengths is essential for developing inclusive and supportive employment systems” and her work at SHRM has outlined the key considerations for such inclusive systems management14 and training is in place. If empathy is such a strong criteria for these classic t-profiles then those individuals can be leant on to support more specialised roles, with less collaborative tendencies or those neurodiverse employees that might not have strong collaboration skills.
The wider our pool of resources and their skills, the more likely we will be to be able to assign the right resources to achieve success. Commonly large or complex projects will need experts at some point and Don Reinertsen points out many of the complex considerations when hiring experts via third party shared services12 such as the need for frequent exposure to other team members, for skills transfer, and not over-utilising experts so they become bottlenecks.
Our project team leaders and training managers can leverage many advantages from the models above when considering team or training matrixes. By including some base training with a wide viewpoint such as Opquast we immediately build empathy as well as enhance the skills of the project team. If we do this early on as part of onboarding then we can create cultures that are not only effective and efficient but which are agile, inclusive, and innovative.
We believe there is a lot of room for collaboration still to be done in developing T-shaped team profiles.
Please let us know what you think below in the comments.
Next article in the series – Part 3 – Empowering teams with T-shaped Agility
1. Chief executive.net https://chiefexecutive.net/ideo-ceo-tim-brown-t-shaped-stars-the-backbone-of-ideoaes-collaborative-culture__trashed/
5. Harvard Business Review May 2017 Neurodiversity Is a Competitive Advantage (hbr.org)
6. Asperger’s Syndrome and Humor – The Asperger / Autism Network (AANE)
8. Oct 15 2021 Ludmila N. Praslova Ph.D SHRM-SCP
Autistic strengths, human value, and human uniqueness: Untangling the strengths-based approach from stereotypes and simplifications.